Having managed to slip away briefly from her household chores, Joyce Mtenje sits at a wooden desk in a district resource centre in Malawi, flipping through the pages of “The Nation” newspaper.
Like citizens across this southern African nation, the 21-year old is taking advantage of a network of EU-funded centres and libraries launched in 1999 to help educate Malawians on their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a multi-party democracy. While an initial goal was focused on voter education, the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) project has since evolved into a much broader platform of civic education.
Today it addresses a variety of themes ranging from public accountability to religious tolerance, facilitating democratic political debate as well as adult literacy classes and radio listening clubs. NICE has evolved into a precious resource for Malawians, and now the time has come for it to shed its status as an EU project and to transform itself into a sustainable Malawian institution.
For Ms. Mtenje, reading at a dimly lit outpost of the EU-supported National Initiative for Civic Eduction (NICE), her thoughts are close to home as she browses the books and periodicals:
"NICE encourages people to know more about this world. By following the current affairs of the country, girls and young women can also gain more confidence to participate in the society,” Mtenje, a secondary school student in Kasungu, says. “I think that if more young women would come to NICE libraries to read books and newspapers, we could even reduce early marriages which are a problem for us right now."
Over the past 10 years, NICE has evolved together with the Malawian society, as it has transitioned into democracy.
The idea to start NICE came as a response to the observations raised in a socio-anthropological study report, which pointed at the need to provide impartial and consistent civic education nationwide. Hence NICE started as ‘a sister project’ to the Malawi-German Program for Democracy and Decentralisation. The first phase of the project started in February 1999 and it focused on sensitising and mobilising voters for Malawi’s second multi-party elections held in June 1999. To ensure local ownership of NICE, Public Affairs Committee collaborated in implementing the NICE project.
The NICE centres (23 district resource centres and 154 rurallibraries) with almost 9,000 volunteers, are now routinely packed with Malawians reading newspapers and books. Many of the users are young and focused on their schooling. For them, the NICE centres offer a quiet environment where it’s easier to focus than in often-crowded and lively homes. They sometimes sit reading outside on the steps, since the rural centres often lack electricity.
NICE workers also organise consultative forums that connect policy and law makers with citizens, who can question their leaders on issues of local interest. In the libraries, public notices such as HIV-AIDS educational materials hang on mud walls, beneath thatched roofs. A "box of life" with free condoms is also available in most libraries – a key resource to complement the civic education work on the HIV pandemic.
In the Northern remote village of Kanyerere in Rumphi district, the rural library has received an enthusiastic response.
"They say that the NICE approach is 'walking with communities'. Our community has been fortunate to 'walk' with NICE since 2003, which is when we started our rural library here in Kanyerere,” says Nictella Chirambo.
He tells the story of the community library: the village headman initiated the project, with NICE providing reading materials. Later, area youths petitioned traditional leaders to allow a permanent structure, which was built from community funds.
“That's what we did: we collected money from the village, and people participated in the building work, and the library was constructed entirely with our own efforts,” says to Mr Chirambo. “We are very proud of it and we would like to expand it in the future so that it could become a community centre!"
The Kanyerere library has recently been fitted with a corrugated iron roof. The funds were sourced from the local community, not from EU funds, which is a welcome sign of strong local ownership of the facility, according to Julia Ojanen, Programme Manager in the EU Delegation to Malawi. She points out that all centres are maintained with local resources and NICE only provides the reading materials and solar powered radios.
That kind of involvement will be important in future, as the NICE project works toward becoming a public trust funded by the Malawi government and other development partners, in addition to the gradually decreasing EU funds.
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EU funding will be phased out on a sliding scale over the next five years, as the government of Malawi works to appoint a recently submitted Board of Trustees. The process of changing the legal status has been a long one, and not without its casualties.
Uncertainty over the future of NICE, and its future funding levels, has already created some uncertainty among staffers and users. For example, NICE has already seen some staff turnover especially at district level. While this is a real loss given the difficulty to find skilled labour in the country, there is some consolation in the fact that there are many enthusiastic young people who are keen to take the places of those who have left. Moreover, the workers will take skills learned on the job at NICE and apply them elsewhere – civic skills and knowledge are useful in almost any job in the development sector.
But what shape and role NICE will ultimately take is ultimately up to the Malawians, according to Ms Ojanen.
“It's a huge challenge and it's perhaps too early to say what impact the transition will have on the character of NICE – if the organisation has to scale down in terms of its physical presence, perhaps it will become more of a social movement for democracy or a platform for civic activism, with its 9,000 volunteers, rather than a public service which it has been for the past 10 years,” she says. "I hope that NICE will be able to maintain its current level of services, and even expand them, and we are working together towards that goal."
For many users of the NICE-supported facilities, the libraries have become a part of the fabric of their daily lives and serve a purpose beyond their original intent.
"The library has reduced domestic violence, because it brings people together and gives them access to information about these issues,” says one villager in Rumphi. “In addition, now people have a better way of spending their afternoons - reading instead of drinking!"
Julia Ojanen of EU Delegation to Malawi has contributed to this article.